Every 30 minutes, volunteers, interns and staff at the Intermountain Bird Observatory take a short walk to check the finely strung nets hung between shrubs high on Lucky Peak in the Foothills. This time, two mountain chickadees have flown into the nets, temporarily captured to be counted, banded and examined.
Dominique Gonçalves, 23, is an intern from Mozambique. She gently extricates one of the migratory songbirds, the work made more difficult by the fact that their strong feet, designed for hanging upside down on trees, clench firmly around the netting.
But learning the subtle art of untangling and how to properly hold a bird — along with more demanding bird identification, taxonomy, banding, research and data-keeping — is why Gonçalves is here.
On Tuesday, Boise State President Bob Kustra and Idaho philanthropist Greg Carr, who is funding and leading the long-term restoration of the park, will sign a memorandum of understanding for collaborative research between the two institutions.
Gonçalves is a biology graduate from Eduardo Monoplane University in the capital of Mozambique. When she completes the fieldwork season on Lucky Peak in November, she will return to Gorongosa to do similar work for research projects set up by the bird observatory.
The bird studies are so important to the park that Carr also will announce that his foundation is giving the observatory $125,000 over the next five years.
“It’s possible that Gorongosa has the most bird species of any place on the entire continent of Africa,” says Carr. “If that’s a true statement, the IBO may be the first people who can document that, and make that claim, and say what’s there and how much is there.
“That’s exciting for the IBO. … It’s exciting that they can take skills they learn and teach at Lucky Peak and bring that to Africa.”
COUNTING THE BIRDS
At Lucky Peak, Gonçalves takes her chickadee to the field station yurt to record its size and sex, band it and blow gently on the stomach feathers to see the delicate muscles and fat stores under the translucent skin — indicative of how ready it is to migrate.
“They want something like this in Gorongosa,” says Gonçalves. “We don’t have a lot of things with birds.”
“That’s the idea,” says Greg Kaltenecker, director of the observatory. “She’ll go back and, with our mentoring, start to do things in the park as a bird person.”
When she returns to Gorongosa, one of the research projects will focus on white storks that winter on Lake Urema in the heart of the park. It’s a major nesting site for the migrants. How major? That’s the question.
“You can’t really say (it’s a site of international significance) unless you know how many birds there are,” says Kaltenecker. Hence the monitoring.
Mount Gorongosa is the lifeblood of the park; it’s the source of the water for Lake Urema that sustains the nesting storks. But decades of tree-cutting and farming have deforested more than 25 percent of the mountain. The park’s Restoration Project has started a program teaching farmers to grow sustainable shade-grown coffee, which provides a cash crop for the local farmers in addition to their household food crops.
Parts of the mountain are intact rainforest, home to an unknown number of birds — perhaps as many as 350 species. That’s more research for the Intermountain Bird Observatory to conduct — identify these bird species and keep track of them.
“One of the things we’d like to do is monitor the birds as they bring the forest back,” says Kaltenecker. “For the next decade or two decades, as these (coffee) plots mature, they will provide habitat for birds. We want to monitor which birds come back and how they come back in time.”
A MODEL FOR CONSERVATION, AND WOMEN
Among parks in Mozambique, Gorongosa is already a model of how conservation can be done well, given enough resources, says Gonçalves, who visited other parks during college. The chance to work at Gorongosa — and to study at the observatory — is a huge opportunity, especially for a young female biologist.
“That is a big step for me,” she said. “I think I can be an example for young women from Gorongosa or (other places). In Gorongosa, very few people have degrees, even the women working in the park from the community, some of them just have high school.
“That is going to be a nice thing for them (to see): that they can do it; it is possible. Just one step.”
At Lucky Peak, Gonçalves sets the chickadee on the flat palm of her hand. It doesn’t linger long before it flies off and chitters in a tree. She smiles.
Previously, Gonçalves’ specialty was mammals. Now, she is expanding her knowledge and her skills.
“One of my goals is to do my master’s and to keep studying,” she says. “And to do something to the conservation of my country.”
That’s Carr’s and Kaltenecker’s goals, too.
“The eventual goal is to have Mozambican students come here, get a graduate degree, go back to the park and become staff,” said Kaltennecker. “They’ll eventually take over that work.”